During the context of conflict and post-conflict reconstruction, women and gendered issues have often been marginalised and silenced from the public sphere and discourse.
Between the period of 1992 until 2019, on average women constituted 13% of negotiators, 6% of mediators, and 6% of signatories in major peace processes worldwide; with almost 70% of them failing to include any women mediators, negotiators, or signatories at all.
The lack of physical representation and participation in the design of peace agreements leads to a marginalisation of gendered issues post-conflict. It should be noted that men and women experience conflict and post-conflict differently, and therefore it is important to have women and women’s issues represented at the negotiating table.
While Northern Ireland did have amazing women such as the Women’s Coalition pushing for gendered issues and gender equality, as well as women mediators on the ground at the grassroots level facilitating dialogue during the design of the Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland can still be characterised as being 'gender-blind', so to speak.
Recently, Women’s Aid have called upon the Northern Ireland Executive to develop and implement a Violence Against Women & Girls Strategy. We are currently the only region in the UK which does not have a specific plan to tackle gendered issues.
In 2016, there was 3,160 reported sexual assaults in Northern Ireland (a crime we know is grossly underreported); in 2017 Northern Ireland had the highest rate of murder by an intimate partner in Europe in terms of per head of population; and in 2020 there was 31,848 domestic abuse incidents reported to the PSNI (again, we know domestic abuse is grossly under reported and many more incidents remain invisible to official statistics).
It is clear from the above statistics that gendered violence needs to be tackled in Northern Ireland.
The Justice Department and Justice Minister Naomi Long have been introducing positive legislation to combat violence against women and girls in Northern Ireland, and tackle gender specific issues and harms.
The Domestic Abuse and Family Proceedings Bill seeks to close any current gaps in Northern Irish law and widens the understanding of what constitutes abuse through the recognition of coercion, psychological, emotional, and financial abuse. New legislation criminalises coercive and controlling behaviour, finally bringing Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the UK and Ireland.
The Protection from Stalking Bill provides greater protections from threatening and abusive behaviours such as stalking, and the introduction of stalking protection orders enables the police to intervene earlier to protect victims of abuse.
In 2020 the Department of Justice commissioned a review of non-fatal strangulation offences to address potential inadequacies in current legislation, the findings of this review will be open to public consultation in the coming weeks. Strangulation is a gendered form of violence and is a high-risk indicator in domestic abuse cases that result in homicide.
All these steps are welcomed from the top-down institutions of Executive power, but the question has to be asked – why did it take over 20 years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement to address gendered issues?
There has been a recent proliferation of young feminist voluntary organisations set up by young Northern Irish women in a bid to raise attention to specifically gendered issues.
Stop Street Harassment NI has been raising awareness of public street harassment and campaigning for legislative change in NI.
Love to Know NI want to tackle the current gaps of knowledge left by the lack of quality relationship and sex education across the island of Ireland.
Similarly, Sex Education Reform NI wants to push for better relationship and sex education and more open conversations about sex within the public discourse.
This year UU Pro-Choice Society was set up, alongside the existing QUBSU Project Choice campaign, as young, pro-choice and reproductive justice movements dedicated to destigmatising abortion and providing unbiased information.
The Belfast Girl Gang, which is an online space to tackle isolation, has seen members share petitions in relation to sex education and up-skirting, directly addressing the lack of legislation here in Northern Ireland, alongside a groupchat to support survivors.
Young women are refusing to pass the buck. They are illustrating that the personal is political as they are actively using their personal experience and organising to ensure these issues are on the Assembly’s radar.
While recent legislation from the Ministry of Justice must be welcomed, we must interrogate why the security of women was not seen as an important aspect of the peace process in Northern Ireland.
Courtney Girvin, MA Conflict Transformation and Social Justice at QUB, is a co-founder of the Belfast Girl Gang.